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Keeping Up Appearances

May 4, 2010

One of my last memories of my Great-Grandmother was on a Sunday morning at church. I was in middle school, I think, and had brought a pan of brownies to Bible class.

After class, I was carrying around the empty pan. It had been lined in foil, so it was clean, but it was old and, as we all know, old pans get grungy and dark. Not crunchy, just grungy. Blackened a bit. It’s what happens to everyone’s bake ware.

Grama was visiting at the time and she saw me carrying around this old pan. Without saying much, she frowned, went to the ladies room, and got a paper towel to tuck inside. She told me not to let anyone see the inside of the pan.

At the time, I had no idea what she meant. I shrugged it off and complied. Whatever.

The incident stuck with me though, like a burr, and I only later realized – she was embarrassed. She was embarrassed for me, for my mom, and for herself. In her day, you didn’t let your bake ware get grungy, you scoured the snot out of it so that it was always pristine. So she covered it up lest anyone else see what sloppy housekeepers her progeny had become.

Decades later, this one incident sheds a lot of light on my mom. On me. On being perfect.

Mom’s family started to break apart while she was in high school. Strong-willed, spoiled and high-strung, her mother was becoming intolerable. Her parents fought constantly. Her brothers were getting in trouble in school, with the law. The perfect familial image of the 1960’s was not evident in her home and so she went to live with her grandmother, Velma.


My great-grandmother Velma was one tough cookie. Immigrating from Oklahoma in the 1930’s, she and her young husband, Ernie, came to Los Angeles to start a new life. They settled down, Ernie got a job at the Edison power plant, and they had their first baby girl, Gene.

A perfect, West-coast life. L.A., post-depression. Palm trees and prosperity.

And then there was an explosion at the power plant.
Ernie died of his injuries the same day.

Gene was only a baby, and Velma had no source of income. Her family is a thousand miles away.

So she enrolled in nursing school. But back then, the trainees had to live in dorms, and she had to hire a nanny to look after her baby daughter. She did what she had to do to support herself and her child in an era when women rarely worked outside the home. How she paid for it all is mind-boggling. But she did. She graduated, became a nurse, and was a single, working mom for several more years.


I have photos from this time period, portraits of a little Gene, in bobby socks and page-boy. And Velma, in her t-straps and cloche hat. Perfect and pristine little portraits of mother and daughter, smiling happily the gardens of 1940’s LA.

One day in the hospital, a patient, Jim, started flirting with this young nurse still in her 20’s. The struck up a friendship. He asked her out. She said no. He asked again. She said no. He even snipped a lock of her hair as she bent over his bed one day, hiding it and never telling until years later.

But dating was not allowed among the nurses. Nurses weren’t even allowed to marry. No, nurses must have the perfect reputation.

He asked again. She said yes. She broke the rules. She did it anyway. She dated Jim on the sly, and fell madly in love a second time.

They married, they set up housekeeping, and she found out that life still wasn’t perfect. Jim was an alcoholic.

I don’t know a lot of the details about this time period – only hints that Jim was “difficult.” They had another child, Jim Junior, and life went on. But knowing what I know about life in 1950’s America – it was all about keeping up appearances. You didn’t air your dirty laundry in public, you kept your house and your family in order, and God-forbid, if you actually had problems in your life, you kept them to yourself.

You kept them to yourself.


Come back tomorrow for Part II!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2010 3:43 pm

    >Gah! I was SO into it, and then…come back tomorrow!!! You tease, you.

  2. May 4, 2010 4:16 pm

    >Adelle, thank you for this story. Since your mother and I were so close, I knew most of it, but loved reading the words from your heart and viewing your precious photos. I remember you grama Velma very well. She was beautiful inside and out. She carried herself with quiet dignity and had a sense of humor attended with a twinkle in her eyes. Your mother adored her. How could she not? Oh to be as strong and faithful as your grama Velma and your mother. They are "giants" among women of faith. Quite a legacy for you. You, my dear, are carrying on, in that legacy, with your faith in the Lord, your love for G and your children and your kindness and care for everyone you meet. I count myself blessed to have brushed up against your family. It was in God's plan. My heart if full of thanksgiving.

  3. May 4, 2010 7:09 pm

    >Keeping up appearances–sounds a lot like my mom's mother with that same perfectionism which was passed down to my mother and then to me. Mom and I both struggle with it still. I'll be waiting to see how you wrap up the story…

  4. May 4, 2010 7:29 pm

    >intriguing!

  5. May 5, 2010 8:59 pm

    >Can't wait to hear the rest. Funny, I didn't know your mom had a Grandma Velma – I thought my Grandma Velma was the only one, haha. Great post though, and family history is so important to understanding ourselves, both our nature and nurture.

  6. May 6, 2010 5:35 am

    >Love those old pictures..and the story is fascinating so far!

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